A few winters ago I started embracing winter by bundling up and going out onto the front porch to watch the sunset as often as I could during the coldest, darkest months of the year. The hues painted by the day’s last rays seem all the more brilliant above a blanket of white; the snow itself turns interesting shades of lavender and gray as the light fades.
One evening while watching a winter sunset I saw a southeast-flying plane appear to be on a collision course with a northwest-flying bird. At the moment their trajectories intersected, I realized that I was among only the first hundred years or so of human beings who’d ever had the opportunity to witness such a scene. For eons prior to the twentieth century, humans had wondered what it would be like to fly like a bird. The “like a bird” part turned out to be the problem. Most of our early efforts to create flying machines were attempts to build an artificial bird--a machine that could flap its wings. It was not until the 1800s that humans began to comprehend the principle of lift that allows a machine to fly without flapping its wings.
It’s possible that whatever idea we have of the winged life--whatever inkling we sense of a larger life beyond the daily munch and crawl of our current caterpillar consciousness--is as mistaken as humans’ first thoughts about how to make a flying machine. The way we frame the problem makes all the difference. When we ask, “How can I be happier?” or “How can I be a success?” we are trying to build artificial birds. But if focusing on happiness and success don’t lead us to the winged life, what gives the human soul lift?
Here’s a passage from modern minister and writer Frederick Buechner that suggests one answer:
The shattering revelation... was that true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world's sake--even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death--that little by little we start to come alive. (From Listen to Your Life, 1992).
Buechner is suggesting that what gives the human soul true lift, and true life, comes to us only when we make our lives about lifting others. When our small caterpillar self is lost in its plans to build an artificial butterfly, when we cannot imagine deviating too much from what the world tells us our lives should be about, it may require the most basic step in faith to trust that making “love your neighbor as yourself” the ultimate aim of life is the great and seldom comprehended secret to the winged life.